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This Flimsy House of Club Cards

June 13, 2010

I would not belong to any drugstore that would have me as a member


Several times a week, I shop at a nearby Duane Reade drugstore, not because I want to, but because it’s close to my apartment. The nearest supermarket is farther away by a full block—another neighborhood by New York City standards—and the less time I spend shopping, the closer I am to my ultimate goal of doing something other than shopping. And yet, try as I will to speed up the process, my transactions at Duane Reade are routinely stalled by invitations to join a disturbing consumerist cult, one whose mating call begins with a dreaded question asked by the cashier at the checkout counter.

“Do you have a Duane Reade Club Card?”

Typically, the query is followed by a pregnant pause, during which I am reminded that the cult leaders of Duane Reade Inc. will not rest until I agree to have that sterile D.R. logo tattooed on my pale behind. Of course, the cashier knows full well that I don’t have a club card. He asks me the same question every time I’m in the store, and my reply is always the same.

“No, I do not have a club card… Not today. Not ever.”

Club-card programs, once a rare gimmick in the retail world, have become an insidiously pervasive practice. Most major drugstores—Duane Reade, CVS, and Rite Aid, to name a few—adopted their own programs years ago, as have nutrition retailers like GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe, not to mention virtually every supermarket chain on the planet. To foster participation in the programs, the stores offer a superficially alluring incentive, namely the discount prices and special offers that are “rewarded” to anyone who signs up. Under the veil of euphemistic misnomers like Extra Care Card and Preferred Savings Card, retailers attempt to drive home the message that club cards are good for consumers. They’re not. They’re good for retailers, which had offered discounts long before club-card programs became commonplace in the 1990s.

Somewhere along the line, storeowners discovered that they can bully their customers into signing up for programs that do nothing more than track and monitor our shopping habits. Meanwhile, those who opt out of the programs are summarily gouged with so-called everyday prices that hover just north of what they should actually cost. In other words, when a store says that it’s rewarding customers who sign up for club cards, what it’s really doing is penalizing people who don’t—people like me. And while my refusal to sign up for club cards invariably evokes a kind of blasé, “Choose Your Battles” reaction, I can’t help but hold on to the notion that this is a battle worth choosing.

At the risk of sounding like a fringy alarmist who cries Orwell at the slightest abdication of privacy, I must, in this case, side with the fringy alarmists. I’m uncomfortable with any system that dangles convenience like a carrot, only to trick us into submitting to the convenience of the system itself. It is the kind of Pavlovian conditioning that ultimately leads to fewer freedoms for us and greater control for those in charge, and it’s a slippery slope. Imagine, for instance, a not-so-distant future in which we are presented with this hypothetical disclaimer:

Good citizens of the United States:

The new Federal Identification Microchip Program is voluntary. However, be advised that anyone who chooses not to undergo the chip-implant procedure will be ineligible to receive significantly reduced fees for a host of government services, including driver’s licenses, passports, H1N1 vaccinations, waste disposal, firearm permits, and many others.

True, going from club cards to a dystopian future of ID-chip implants is a stretch, but it doesn’t negate the fact that a store is a store, not a country club. A store is not an entity one would voluntarily “join,” and I can see no real reason to do so. I go to Duane Reade to buy things and leave. As I consider shopping a chore, not a pastime, I am really quite frightened by the notion of being “one of them,” which brings us to the emotional crux of my refusal to carry a club card.

I’ve thought long and hard about where to place the imaginary lines that separate me from the consumerist masses, the thing-worshiping parishioners of the International Church of Wal-Mart, or K-Mart, or Whatever-Mart. I’m not defending my imaginary lines, but I have discovered that I need them to function, just as we all need our own imaginary lines to recognize the chasm that separates us from them.

As creatures with an intense need for self-definition, we all draw lines. Whether we draw them on the basis of race, gender, economic status, education level, or the Beatles vs. Stones debate doesn’t really matter. To be denied the basic right to feel superior to someone else is to be denied a crucial part of the human experience. (Oh, you’re a Red Sox fan? Fuck you.) None of us is really above indulging in this type of petty thinking, at least on occasion. Even the enlightened Buddhist monk meditating on the highest mountain peak in the Himalayas is secretly feeling superior to his fellow monks on smaller mountains. Think about it. You feel superior to someone. Perhaps it’s the bitchy reality-TV star whose desperate need for attention is just plain sad, or maybe it’s the superstitious sap down the street who still needs religion to cope with life, or the smug atheist whose certainty that nothing exists beyond the material world just makes him come off like an asshole.

Or, hell, maybe the only person you really feel superior to is the guy who blogs about his aversion to drugstore club cards. It still counts.

That said, I will never join the ranks of retail club members, not because I am better than them, but because, inside, I am  just like them. I am a closet elitist, a star-bellied Sneetch who keeps his star hidden behind ill-fitting hipster shirts—the kind you can’t buy at Whatever-Mart.

Still think I should choose my battles? Join the club.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 11:37 pm

    I know about your hidden star! The gig is up.
    I am the bitchy reality tv star, starving for attention, inferior to everyone.

    Don’t frighten me! I might run away with the bedouin, or find a cave and hide.

    • June 17, 2010 3:39 am

      Jane, you are quite the opposite. You are the reluctant muse. Try as you will, you can not be inferior, because without you, there would be no art. And what kind of world would that be?

  2. July 13, 2010 6:06 am

    I still remember how offended I was (or pretended to be) when you suggested that I was the demographic of the yuppie Seattle Magazine. You’re talking about a different sort of anti-elitism elitism, but it’s the same idea. I admire your refusal to be counted as one of the buying masses. However, it begs the question, would you buy the magazine you write for?

    • July 13, 2010 1:08 pm

      Ha, I remember that. And I was totally wrong. You are more The Stranger than Seattle Mag, but I would not be so bold as to define you as either.

      Your question is a good one: How does the anti-consumerist sleep at night when he knows his livelihood is, in some respects at least, dependent upon consumers? I may not sleep tonight as I ponder this circular quandary.

    • July 14, 2010 1:31 am

      Oh, and in my defense, you were working for Microsoft at the time. Haha.

      • Kate permalink
        July 14, 2010 7:12 pm

        True, that!

  3. Kate permalink
    July 13, 2010 6:35 pm

    Maybe “defensive” is a better term than “offended.”
    In any case, such is the burden of the artistic temperment. I’m writing an unfavorable review of the play I just worked. We’re both such 4’s.

  4. August 1, 2010 3:28 pm

    Hello Sneetch. I eventually got a card, because I wanted the extra “savings” to go for stuff for my kids, yet I agree with your essential premise. My secret revenge is to shop for as much as I can at the local co-op! We each have our mountain to die on – mine is refusing to sign the back of my credit card so the clerk is forced to verify my ID.
    Keep writing
    Keep railing

    • August 1, 2010 6:35 pm

      Thanks, Alexandra. You’re right. We can’t all fight all the battles. We would drive ourselves totally nuts. For instance, I sometimes buy clothes without a thought to who makes them and under what conditions. I’m sure if I knew I would be horrified.

      PS… I also don’t sign the back of my credit cards, and I’ve found that the clerks still don’t ask for my ID. Hmmmm.

  5. August 16, 2010 4:45 pm

    This is hilarious. It reminds me of Barnes and Noble. I go there often, but I don’t want their card. One day-after a year of resisting-this checkout girl would not process my debit card until I agreed to add the membership-knowing a loooong line was behind me-people were angry and scowling. So, finally, I agreed. As I got in the car-I noticed that Kaly was carrying a turtle-it was so cute-and sparkly. It cost $25. Normally, I would have gone back in to pay for it-but actually-they forced me to buy their $25 card-so I said, “To hell with you B&N-that’s what you get!” I had spent $230 that day anyway-on just books-not counting the card.

    Sometimes-I feel twinges of guilt.
    not really.

    Love this post!!!

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